I finally saw Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are this weekend, and it’s required viewing for teachers.
I haven’t looked at Maurice Sendak’s book in many years, although it was read to me approximately 800 times between ages 2 and 8. My dad recreated the “wild rumpus” by bouncing my sister and me on the bed, and I couldn’t get enough of it. When the book ends with Max finally eating his supper, I was disappointed that he’d left the wild things behind, and wanted to jump back to rumpus time.
Revisiting Max as an adult, through Spike Jonze’s masterful lens, was a joy and a revelation. Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers have crafted a rich, wandering narrative that plants us wholly in nine-year-old Max’s mind for the entire film. The result is a giddy, heartbreaking 90 minutes that offers an unrestrained glimpse back into childhood.
Max wants attention. Badly. In the film’s opening scenes, his imagination and desire for company lead him to disappointment when, during a snowball fight that Max instigated, his special snow igloo is crushed by an older boy His sadness manifests in a vicious outburst toward his single mom when she tries to feed him frozen corn in a scene that drew laughs from kids in the theater (“Woman, feed me!” Max shouts from a tabletop). I watched it and felt unbelievably sad.
Max runs away and finds company with the wild things, who reflect his desires and fears. Tellingly, the biggest cause for upset in the wild things’ territory is articulated by Carol, a wild thing voiced by James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini, who cries, “This isn’t the way you said things would be!”
In Jonze’s movie, the gap between what is promised and what is delivered means everything. Adults see this gap as inevitable; kids view it as earth-shattering. With the wild things, Max declared himself king and promised his melancholy subjects that he could deliver harmony and happiness. Of course, this proves impossible. The film never descends to clichés, but simply, everything is not going to be alright.
Max’s desires to create a safe new world for himself, and to create a new family where everyone always sticks together (and “sleeps in a real pile,” as he promises in the movie) are poignant and real. Despite Max’s efforts, the new world he attempts to create isn’t as safe or insulated as he’d hoped. His new family isn’t as stable as he’d dreamed. Max’s casual epiphany, “You guys need a mom,” is as powerful as it is quiet.
Max needs someone to listen to him. His mom often does, and she loves him very much, but she has her own burdens that pull her away from providing the complete security that Max craves. He needs others to pick up the slack. He needs teachers to help him.
In a brief classroom scene early in the film, Max’s teacher callously explains that the sun is going to die. The teacher is methodical, oblivious to the monumental ripple effects of this information on a nine-year-old’s worldview. School is a place of anxiety, not discovery or support.
Max needs a lot of support to make it in a cold, indifferent “real world.” He needs his mom, he needs his sister, he needs friends, and he needs teachers.
As teachers, we need to see Where the Wild Things Are and think again about the world from a kid’s-eye-view.